With their official options for recourse dwindling, local All Aboard Florida opponents have gone rogue in their fight against the passenger rail project, spending thousands of dollars crafting responses to an environmental report that the federal government says is closed to comments.
Martin and Indian River counties argue that the report, All Aboard Florida’s final environmental impact statement, is incomplete: It fails to fully consider alternative routes for the Miami-to-Orlando passenger railroad, address the negative effects of 32 trains a day and prove compliance with environmental regulations.
The report — which the Federal Railroad Administration will use as its basis for deciding All Aboard Florida’s $1.6 billion federal-loan request — fell far short of being a “final, full-disclosure document” as required by law, and should be redone or at least supplemented by a more complete assessment, Martin County said in a recent letter to the railroad administration.
But the federal government has no obligation to consider these responses, let alone require a new impact statement.
And it’s unclear whether the more than 100 pages submitted by Martin and Indian River counties and activist group CARE FL will carry any special weight.
“We’re always happy to receive comments from the public,” said Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Michael Cole. But there is no official comment period for the final impact statement, he said.
The public was given the chance to respond during the 75-day comment period following release of the draft report, Cole said.
Issued in September, the draft drew more than 15,000 public comments, many from the Treasure Coast and most in opposition to the project, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, which oversaw and released the report.
Local officials over the last year have criticized All Aboard Florida’s participation in the federal process. The company’s incomplete work — from draft engineering plans that omitted long stretches of track to an environmental report that glosses over the public’s concerns — has hindered local efforts to fight the proposed rail expansion, according to officials.
These issues, compounded by a largely-unsuccessful legal battle against the project, apparently have pushed Treasure Coast opponents to find their own way forward.
The final impact statement should have addressed how the $3 billion project could impact neighborhoods, environmentally-sensitive lands, historical sites, public safety and quality of life, but is so lacking that the Federal Railroad Administration cannot actually legally use it as its basis to approve the project, according to Indian River County.
Rather, the railroad administration must require a new environmental report, one which adequately examines the effect of increased noise and vibration on cultural and historical sites, the county said.
CARE FL in a 17-page response, described the impact statement as “not a good-faith effort,” but rather a “predetermined judgment in favor of the project,” concluding that “the FEIS must be invalidated and the project put on hold.”
The group criticized the “ill-conceived” project’s effects on mariners and questioned the validity of the data, used by All Aboard Florida, that apparently underplays potential waterway traffic problems.
“Each of the errors and missteps in the FEIS … are the (basis) for multiple false assertions and conclusions,” CARE said, adding that the railroad administration must be more transparent.
Construction of All Aboard Florida already has begun between Miami and West Palm Beach, and service there is to begin in early 2017. Work on the second phase — from West Palm Beach to Orlando International Airport — could begin this month, with trains there beginning in late 2017, according to All Aboard Florida.